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The Experience and the Theology of Suffering
Historical, Cultural, and Theological Reflections
from within the Three Religions of Abraham

Proposal of Aaron Milavec accepted
for the 2005 NEH Summer Institute "Ways of Communicating"
The Oriental Institute; The University of Chicago

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Origins

Some years back, I presented a course with Ann Millin on Jewish and Christian Responses to the Shoah at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. During the presentation of this course I became convinced, more than ever before, that the various justifications of undeserved suffering within Judaism and Christianity have led to lamentable applications. Moreover, the Christian atonement theory has frequently been used by Christians to glorify the sufferings of Jesus and to insult Jewish sensibilities. In the alarm surrounding the forthcoming film by Mel Gibson, the historical cycle of blame and misunderstanding are reenkindled.

My First Book

Edward Schillebeeckx investigated the whole gamut of responses by the various world religions to the experience of undeserved suffering and death. Then, by way of bringing his findings to bear on the crucifixion of Jesus, he wrote these sobering words:

God and suffering are diametrically opposed. . . . Therefore, first of all, we have to say that we are not redeemed thanks to the death of Jesus but despite it.

Accordingly, during the past twelve months, I have been impelled to write a book that freshly explores and unflinchingly critiques how Christians and Jews speak of sin, suffering, and death within the context of our shared yearning for God's salvation after Auschwitz. In the end, I expose the atonement theory as being marginally biblical, dangerously pastoral, and outrageously anti-Jewish. My hope is that this book (see appendix) might function as a healing antidote to both Jewish (the Aqedah) and Christian spiritualities that sanctions the suffering of the innocent by way of securing God's forgiveness or blessings.

My Special Project during this Six-week Institute

Now that my first book is completed, I find that it does not go far enough. I need to expand my material and to create a whole new section pertaining to the Islamic experience of suffering (especially in the Shi'ite tradition). My final book would thus carry the title, The Experience and Theology of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Suffering: Historical Roots and Contemporary Reevaluations. This enlarged book would explore and critique how Jews, Christians, and Muslims speak of sin, suffering, and death within their unique historical, cultural, and theological/philosophical traditions. The book would highlight how each of religions of Abraham maintains a shared yearning for justice and strive to secure God's salvation in the face of the experience of unjust suffering.

My Preparation for Completing this Project

My long-time engagement within Jewish and Muslim circles and my sympathy for overcoming the historical antagonisms between the religions of Abraham make me uniquely capable of carrying through this pioneering endeavor. A few examples follow.

In 1982, I was selected as Group Theologian for one hundred and fifty college-age Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Native Americans bent upon undertaking a three-month world pilgrimage to the major holy places: Jerusalem, Cairo, Rome, Varanasi, Kathmandu, Beijing, Kyoto, Seoul. This experience shattered all my academic notions of the Eastern religions and set me on a course to discover the heart and soul and mind of the East. My book, A Pilgrim Experiences the World's Religions: Discovering the Human Faces of the Hidden God, recounts the beginnings of this journey. Professor Huston Smith, a leading member of this pilgrimage, wrote in his preface to my book: "Holy places . . . are one thing; persons are another." So true! Following upon those two world pilgrimages, I spent the next twelve years presenting a class entitled Christianity and World Religions. My classes in Themes in Church History, Jewish-Catholic Dialogue, and Ecumenism were always well received, but it was my elective in world religions that was always overflowed with enthusiastic students. So, together we learned the essentials of Islam and then met to dialogue with Muslims, then on to Buddhists, etc. You can understand, therefore, why I am so keen on bringing to my forthcoming book and teaching a much deeper understanding of Islam.

Relative to Islam, my background is strong in experience but weak in the very areas that this Institute will address. Relative to experience, I have immersed myself in traditional Islamic environments in the Middle East and in North Africa for two months. I have prayed with Muslims a dozen times, and have engaged in discussions of Hadith with Muslims for over 420 hours. In Victoria last year, I attended four Islamic lectures and read various books/articles related thereto. Most important to me were Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and Amina Wadud, Qur'an and Women: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. Two weeks ago, out in California, I attended two lectures: (1) Dr. Zakia Salime, "Converging Women's Movements in Morocco: Islamist and Secular" and (2) Dr. Zaya Kassam, "One God of Many?--in Islam and Hinduism." I indicate this by way of assuring you that, in recent months, my engagement with Islam has been anything but dormant.

Currently I have just published two books--one with Paulist Press and another with Liturgical Press--both dealing with the Didache. Both of these books had their immediate origins in the only other NEH Summer Seminar that I ever attended. Accordingly I wrote these words of gratitude to Jacob Neusner:

You put me on a road that no one had traveled. You taught me to stay with the clues of the text until I discovered the unified worldview and the unique way of life that stood behind the text. You pointed me toward something that no one expected to be able to find.

When I join you, I will have eight books, seven chapters in collected works, twelve electronic Case Studies, and forty contributions to academic journals to my name. In three areas, my research interests are especially evident: (a) history of the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism and of its subsequent historical/theology encounters; (b) inter-faith dialogue, and (c) the Didache.

Preliminary Bibliography

Ali, Syed Ameer. The Spirit of Islam: A History of the Evolution and Ideals of Islam, with a Life of the Prophet. London: Chatto & Windus, 1978.
Ayoub, Mahmoud. Redemptive Suffering in Islam. The Hague: Mouton, 1978.
______________. The Crisis of Muslim History: Religion and Politics in Early Islam. Oxford: One World.
Blichfeldt, Jan?Olaf. Early Mahdism: Politics and Religion in the Formative Period of Islam. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985.
Bravmann. M.M. The Spiritual Background of Early Islam. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997.
Brown, Daniel. Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Cook, Michael. Early Muslim Dogma. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Hallaq, Wael B. Authority, Continuity and Change in Islamic Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
al-Ghazali (Kojiro Nakamura, trans.). Al?Ghazali on Invocations and Supplications: Book IX of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society,1990.
Al-Ghazali (T.J. Winter, trans.). Al-Ghazali on the Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society, 1989.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein and Mehdi Amin Razavi, eds. An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Ormsby, Eric L. Theodicy in Islamic Thought: The Dispute Over al?GhazaliÆs "Best of All Possible Worlds." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Rosenthal, Franz. Sweeter than Hope: Complaint and Hope in Medieval Islam. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997.

Appendix: Table of Contents of my First Book

The Experience and Theology of Unjust Suffering:
Fresh Examinations of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Traditions

Preface

Chapter 1: Overcoming the Habit of Sugarcoating Suffering page 001

Chapter 2: Broken Image of the Cross at Auschwitz 033

Chapter 3: Jewish Refusal to Justify the Suffering of the Innocents 063

Chapter 4: Glorification of the Cross Critically Reexamined 093

Chapter 5: Soft Spots in Anselm's Theology of the Cross 123

Chapter 6: The Forgiveness of Sins Apart from Jesus 157

Chapter 7: I Believe with a Perfect Faith in the Coming of the Messiah 171

Chapter 8: Islamic Experience and Theology of Martyrdom 213

Epilogue: Safety Rules for Dealing with Victims of Undeserved Violence 231

Appendix: Gibson's Flawed Film about Redemptive Violence 249